An Exceptional Nation?
The United States of America did not emerge as a nation until
about 175 years after its establishment as a group of mostly
British colonies. Yet from the beginning it was a
different society in the eyes of many Europeans who viewed it
from afar, whether with hope or apprehension. Most of its
settlers – whether the younger sons of aristocrats, religious
dissenters, or impoverished indentured servants – came there
lured by a promise of opportunity or freedom not available in
the Old World. The first Americans were reborn free,
establishing themselves in a wilderness unencumbered by any
social order other than that of the primitive aboriginal peoples
they displaced. Having left the baggage of a feudal order
behind them, they faced few obstacles to the development of a
society built on the principles of political and social
liberalism that emerged with difficulty in 17th- and
18th-century Europe. Based on the thinking of the
philosopher John Locke, this sort of liberalism emphasized the
rights of the individual and constraints on government power.
Most immigrants to America came from the British Isles, the
most liberal of the European polities along with The
Netherlands. In religion, the majority adhered to various
forms of Calvinism with its emphasis on both divine and secular
contractual relationships. These greatly facilitated the
emergence of a social order built on individual rights and
social mobility. The development of a more complex and
highly structured commercial society in coastal cities by the
mid-18th century did not stunt this trend; it was in these
cities that the American Revolution was made. The constant
reconstruction of society along an ever-receding Western
frontier equally contributed to a liberal-democratic spirit.
In Europe, ideals of individual rights advanced slowly and
unevenly; the concept of democracy was even more alien.
The attempt to establish both in continental Europe's oldest
nation led to the French Revolution. The effort to destroy
a neofeudal society while establishing the rights of man and
democratic fraternity generated terror, dictatorship, and
Napoleonic despotism. In the end, it led to reaction and
gave legitimacy to a decadent old order. In America, the
European past was overwhelmed by ideals that sprang naturally
from the process of building a new society on virgin land.
The principles of liberalism and democracy were strong from the
beginning. A society that had thrown off the burdens of
European history would naturally give birth to a nation that saw
itself as exceptional.
Questions with answers in bold:
1. What English writer (1632-1704) emphasized the rights of the individual and constraints on government power?
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Text courtesy of the U.S. State Department, Bureau of International Information Programs, 2005